I'm a couple days late to the party over Wolfram Alpha because I didn't realize that it was a public website. But now that I have discovered it, I'm asking all sorts of question that I haven't been asking before.
In particular I have decided to try to figure out, given a large data center room of specific dimensions, how much Halon would I have to buy and what size containers could they fit in. I know what I have to know and I also know that Alpha doesn't know how to answer my question. But once I get the mathematical part of it quantified, I'm pretty sure Alpha will help. But today its contextualizer exists but it's weak.
I am intrigued by the ways in which Alpha will make proper assumptions or interrogate the knowledge seeker to get the right context. You see it was only by looking at Wikipedia that I discovered that the proper amount of Halon required to put out a fire is 3-7% v/v. I have never seen the 'v/v' designation before. It means volume ratio. The air mix will have to be 3-7% Halon for it to perform its chemistry of suffocating the fire. So if a room has a volume of 1000 cubic meters, you'd need about 50 cubic meters of Halon. Now how much can you compress Halon and what would 50 cubic meters of it weigh? Again Wikipedia gives me the context.
I got frustrated with Alpha before completing the problem which remains unsolved, but I like that there is a public Mathematica out there. Purchasing a copy has been one of those things on my big intellectual guilt To Do list, like reading the essays of Montaigne and Pliny the Elder. So, being lazy, I'm happy to be thus frustrated. At least I saved the moola.
But still, knowing that Alpha is out there to ask makes for an economy of askers. That's all good. But it also reminds us what we don't know. For me, it reminds me that I haven't been contributing to Obscura, my curiosity blog. Today, I've added a new entry. You see since Alpha understands something about chemicals, it reminded me that I once worked in the chemicals business, back before we banned CFCs. My favorite CFC was called 112. Back in the day, I used to be able to tell how pure it was (we ran a big still) by smell. I might have been a ChemE if the business had an ounce more glamor and I owe a great deal to the man who gave me that job.
It bears repeating that 112 is heavier than air and that we worried about suffocating if we were in the pit under the still. That's the one place on site Mr. O wouldn't let me go. And of course Americans love the conveniences that the chemical industry provides but lets environmentalists create a hostile environment for the business of making them. Every once in a while I think about the chemical industry and how I hope biotech evolves it and how little the average Joe really knows about what goes on at chemical plants. So lots of the CFCs we processed hug the ground. You couldn't get it up to the ozone layer if you tried. But if enough winds blow you could get some up there in 15 years. But everybody is on the hook for some science only a few people understand.
Alpha is a step in changing all that. It's the third kind of resource the Internet needs in addition to a global traffic search like Google and a context generating encyclopedia like Wikipedia.